BY REUBEN BYE
On 8th July organisers in Tbilisi attempted to mark the local Pride Week by holding a festival on the outskirts of the Georgian capital. For the second year in a row, the event took place in private after a history of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, protest, and violence in the deeply conservative country.
Despite precautions, up to 2000 anti-LGBTQ+ protesters arrived at the event, proceeding to rush the stage and set rainbow flags and placards on fire. Protesters – including clergy – were seen tussling with police who were unable to prevent the chaos. The participants were evacuated by bus, concluding another Pride tainted by violence and intimidation. Fortunately, no injuries have been reported.
LGBTQ+ people in Georgia have regularly faced hostility and ostracization and Tbilisi Pride has faced significant violence and opposition in its short history.
On 17th May 2013, LGBTQ+ activists attempted to organise a rally to mark the International Day Against Homophobia. Before it could take place, thousands of anti-LGBTQ+ protestors led by Georgian Orthodox priests took to the streets decrying ‘homosexual propaganda’ and the erosion of tradition and morals. The mob stormed barricades in front of the rally – 28 people were injured, and the police stopped an attempted lynching. The Georgian Orthodox Church then declared May 17th ‘Family Purity Day’.
Tbilisi Pride was established in early 2019, yet the planned sombre (because organisers highlighted that the community there had little to celebrate) March of Dignity had to be cancelled due to threats from far-right, nationalist and religious groups. A small, short, impromptu parade was later held outside the Ministry of Internal Affairs. It was over before counter-protesters could arrive, who then proceeded to demand the repeal of an anti-discrimination law and the banning of ‘perverted behaviour’.
In 2021, far-right groups attacked a Pride parade and ransacked the Tbilisi Pride offices, injuring 53 journalists and leaving 1 cameraman dead. A leader of far-right group Alt-Info, Zurab Makharadze, had previously accused politicians of subverting cultural and moral norms and enforcing “foreign directives like the foreign-imposed colonial administration”. This is likely in response to 15 opposition parties having signed a memorandum with Tbilisi Pride alongside the government’s enactment of an anti-discrimination law.
Given this context of fanatic, violent bigotry, this year’s protests are not remotely surprising. The director of Tbilisi Pride, Mariam Kvaratskhelia, criticised the response from police and the interior ministry and she has blamed far-right groups for inciting violence against LGBTQ+ activists. She even stated that she believes the recent attack is “definitely…a preplanned, coordinated action between the government and the radical groups…to sabotage the EU candidacy of Georgia”. The President of Georgia, Salome Zourabichvili – whose role is largely ceremonial – echoed this criticism by denouncing the police’s failure to uphold people’s right to freedom of assembly.
The interior ministry has been accused of attempts to hide queer people by suggesting that Pride events should take place in private areas to not provoke protests, and private communications have revealed police sympathies toward the anti-LGBTQ+ extremists. A government minister has sought to downplay criticism of state responses by stressing that the location of the event in an open area near Lake Lisi made it difficult to limit access to the site. It should also be noted that the Ministry of the Interior has refused to open an investigation.
Georgia remains a very conservative nation and is consistently found to be one of the most hostile states in Europe when it comes to social attitudes toward, and legal protections afforded to, LGBTQ+ people. ILGA-Europe ranks Georgia 35th in terms of LGBTI human rights. In addition, 87% of Georgian respondents in a 2018 social survey programme for the Leibniz Institute believed that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex is always wrong, indicating one of the highest rates of homophobia in Europe. Given the high degree of general hostility toward LGBTQ+ rights – and existence – it is easy to see why the government has not been more proactive in defending its own citizens. Homophobic narratives have become an effective way to discredit civil society groups, and the politicisation of LGBTQ+ demonstrations for political gain has been explicitly blamed for the recent violence at Tbilisi Pride.
Much of the Georgian political elite and civil society has sought greater integration with Europe since the 2003 Rose Revolution, with the long-term goal of joining the European Union. To meet the requirements for EU accession, the Georgian government has passed equality legislation, such as a wide-reaching 2014 anti-discrimination law with explicit protections for sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Unfortunately, such progress has been consistently undermined by government rhetoric, and human rights groups have regularly accused the government of using legislation as a façade to gain European favour whilst not attempting to change social stigmas. This is most clearly demonstrated by the 2017 constitutional amendment defining marriage as “a union between a woman and a man for the purposes of creating a family”. People may have the legal right to freedom of expression but if the government is unwilling or unable to defend it then it is effectively non-existent.
For its part, the EU and Western governments have been very active in promoting LGBTQ+ rights in Georgia, much to the annoyance of far-right groups. A free trade agreement and visa free travel access has given Brussels some leverage over Tbilisi, without which legislative progress is not likely to have occurred. Similarly, financial assistance and diplomatic lobbying combined with the efforts of NGOs have increased awareness of LGBTQ+ issues in the country and somewhat encouraged the government to prevent violence. Western pressure is becoming increasingly important because of concerns about a drift towards authoritarianism under the current Georgian Dream ruling party. These fears are often repeated by frequent government critic – and President – Zourabichvili. Earlier this year, following mass protests, Prime Minister Garibashvili was forced to withdraw a Russian-style foreign agents bill that would require any NGOs receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as “agents of foreign influence”. This would have affected many rights groups, especially those covering LGBTQ+ issues.
International attention is controversial within the queer community in Georgia since it has frequently been a top-down pressure that has neglected local needs. It has also fed a narrative of foreign-imposed values which has led to the further alienation of an already incredibly marginalised community. To be more effective at promoting LGBTQ+ issues while minimising harm, international actors must listen to local activists and prioritise grassroots movements in the Georgian context. Comments made by European parliamentarians indicate that the EU is beginning to realise that local agendas should come first. With this in mind, robust international support represents a silver lining to a very dark cloud.
This year’s disruption of Tbilisi Pride is unsurprising, even predictable. The appalling rhetoric of far-right groups and Georgian politicians is ongoing, and violence and hatred against queer people is unlikely to cease. The government’s reluctance around LGBTQ+ rights, as well as general fears about democratic backsliding, reveal the scale of obstacles between the present state of Georgian politics and any EU aspirations.
In much of the West, it is cliché to discuss whether Pride still represents a protest. Is it too commercialised? Has it become a tool for pinkwashing? In Georgia, Pride must be a protest, and activists repeat that, so far, they have little to celebrate.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Bojan Cvetanović